SEMİH İDİZ > When will Arabs enjoy true democracy?

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From Tunisia to Egypt, from Iraq to Syria, there is little to indicate that the Arab world is destined for a democratic future anytime soon. The simple fact is that societies of the “Arab Spring” have not had the democratic traditions that could facilitate an easy transition to this kind of a system.

This situation is not part of the unalterable “social genetics” of these nations, of course. It just means that democracy, as understood in advanced societies, will need serious time to flourish in the Arab world. Contrary to the self-congratulation of current-day Europeans concerning their democracies, democracy did not come easily to Europe either. In most cases, it only came after the bloody events of World War II.

Not all Arab countries have similar backgrounds, of course. Tunisia, for example, is better off than Egypt, relatively speaking, since it did have political parties, trade unions, a wealthier population and a broader middle class.

This, however, did not prevent it from being run by a dictator for nearly a quarter of a century until 2010. As for today, we see political unrest developing that could stymie efforts to establish true democracy in that country.

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), who was born in Egypt to Turkish parents and holds a masters of science degree from the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo, is also of the opinion that democracy should not be expected overnight in the Middle East and North Africa.

In an interview with daily Hürriyet on Monday, İhsanoğlu indicated that most initial assessments about the Arab Spring, especially with relation to Egypt, were “superficial,” to use his word.

“If you take Egypt, for example, there was nothing to mention as a political party over these past 60 years. Freedom of expression; freedom of assembly – none of these existed,” according to İhsanoğlu, who went on to declare that the only thing that united the people gathered in Tahrir Square at the time was a desire to see the regime go.

İhsanoğlu added that the situation in Egypt today resembles the situation in Turkey in 1908, when Sultan Abdülhamit was deposed by a diverse group of nationalists, Islamists, and members of different ethnic groups, who were united only in their desire to see the sultan go.

Abdülhamit did go after the “Young Turk revolution,” but that was also the start of years of political turmoil, as different groups vied for power, and the whole crisis ended in the “İttihadist” dictatorship that led the empire to war and desolation out of which the Turkish Republic eventually emerged.

İhsanoğlu believes that democratic stability in a country like Egypt will most likely come only after two full terms of Parliament, because the opposing political movements necessary for a true democracy have yet to emerge. As for religious-political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, these already existed as Islamic social groups, according to him, and were organized to provide charity, education and health for the poor.

He says these groups managed to convert themselves into political parties overnight, and came to power in the first round of attempts at democracy following the Arab Spring because their existing organizations that facilitated this.

What İhsanoğlu says presupposes that the Arab Spring will not be hijacked in the name of security and stability by one group or another – be it Islamist or otherwise – and that elections for new parliaments will be held in the foreseeable future. Developments, suggest that this expectation might be overoptimistic.

It could also be that true democracy in the region emerges, not after “two parliaments,” but after bloody events or new dictatorships that leave exhausted societies with little choice in the end, as was the case in most of Europe.

So the answer to the question, “When will Arabs enjoy true democracy?” seems to be, “Not for some time yet.”


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mara mcglothin

2/14/2013 9:14:32 PM

BMEDIC Most people in SA get free utilities and such regardless of where they live. It would seem with multi-billion dollar surpluses that something would be done about unemployment. Why does anyone need to work. Also you would think that with such a vast difference in wealth that eventually there would be some disgruntle umemployed folks to revolt?

B Medic

2/13/2013 10:23:04 AM

@mara: No, in terms of GDP per capita, most Arab countries are very poor. 6-7 countries with oil are quite rich, but most of the oil money there go to a very small number of people. All Arab countries except Qatar, Kuwait and UAE have problems with high unemployment. SA, for example with all its oil, has 10% unemployment among men. SA also has no parliament, no constitution and not even proper courts. This makes democracy difficult to introduce.

mara mcglothin

2/12/2013 4:30:16 PM

BMEDIC But wouldn't you agree that most Arab countries have more money than the others of which you have spoken? Didn't SA have a budget surplus in the billions this year? Ataturk was planning on it happening in Turkey in 50 years, but he missed the mark. Maybe if he had lived longer. We will never know. Turkey seems to be taking three steps forward eight steps back all of the time. The EU membership possibility should have sped things up?

B Medic

2/12/2013 12:27:20 PM

Democracy doesn't come overninght, especially not when public institutions don't work and the economy is not growing. The quickest transitions to democracy: Portugal in 74 + Poland, Czech Rep and Hungary in the 90s, took ~2 years. Spain needed 5 years and most Latin American countries 7-10 years to get their human rights and public institutions on track. Then you need economic growth. Most Arab countries are not very well prepared for this.

Johanna Dew

2/12/2013 11:43:20 AM

Mostly a balanced and fair columnist, this time not; democracy came after Europeans went through Renaissance, Enlightenment, Reformation, industrial and sexual revolution, empowerment and the input of thousands of scientists, artists, writers, thinkers, innovators, business people and a religion which facilitates, NOT dictates. Do we see any of this in the Arab world or NOW in Turkey?

Daniel Boom

2/12/2013 10:02:09 AM

The question should be, “When will Turks enjoy true democracy?”. Because democracy is not just elections but many other substantial things like human rights, freedom of expression, freedom to believe in any God etc...

sid solo

2/12/2013 7:58:32 AM

It is very honourable to wish for democracy in other nations. Who would disagree? Yet, this seems to be another case of "the pot calling the kettle black". Mr Idiz should concentrate at democracy at home. May I remind him of Atatürk's famous phrase: "Peace at home, peace to the world".

jim handley

2/12/2013 6:11:12 AM

Most Europeans and Americans are not religious and don't let themselves get swayed by populist dogma. The arabs need to do the same. They need to enhance their education system, keeping the hate out, and strive for gender equality. Unfortunately I don't see any of that happening. It's even a problem in Turkey, but not nearly like it is with the arabs.


2/12/2013 6:01:42 AM

If you change the word Arabs into Muslims you will come closer to the problem

mara mcglothin

2/12/2013 12:44:24 AM

When they stop fighting among themselves and come together around the table and debate the issues like civilized people. then and only then.
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